New Study Ties Spike in Hospitalizations for Genital, Skin, and Urinary Ailments to Fracking in Pennsylvania

Protesters stood front of the Mars Area High School in Middlesex Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania, on July 15, 2015 to demand a ban on fracking near all schools. (Photo: Public Herald/flickr/cc)

New Study Ties Spike in Hospitalizations for Genital, Skin, and Urinary Ailments to Fracking in Pennsylvania

"Yet another study on how #fracking makes people VERY SICK."

New research has tied high rates of hospitalizations for genital, skin, and urinary conditions to fracking in Pennsylvania, underscoring mounting concerns about the public health implications of the controversial process of extracting natural gas.

Alina Denham, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester, led a research team that analyzed county-level hospital data for the state from 2003 to 2014. Their findings indicated that "long-term exposure to unconventional drilling may be harmful to population health."

The conclusion bolstered previous findings about the dangers of fracking--a process also called hydraulic fracturing that involves injecting a mix of water and chemicals into the ground to access gas.

Past research has connected fracking with human health threats ranging from headaches to asthma to cancer. What distinguishes this team's findings is the conditions that prompted increased hospital stays, as well as those who were most commonly affected.

The details of the study, which will be published in the March issue of the journal Public Health, were reported Tuesday by Environmental Health News. As EHN outlined:

After correcting for demographic factors like race and income, Denham and her colleagues found that as the number of new wells and the well density in a county increased over time, there was a corresponding increase in hospitalization rates for kidney infections, kidney stones, and urinary tract infections, particularly in women ages 20-64.

Genital and urinary diseases are "not something that comes to mind first when we think of the potential impacts of fracking," Denham said. "We were thinking we'd see respiratory or cardiovascular issues, so our findings were surprising."

The researchers were also surprised to learn that these issues mostly affected adult women, rather than children and the elderly, who are generally more vulnerable to environmental health impacts. In general, women are more susceptible to urinary tract infections than men, which can lead to kidney infections and kidney stones if left untreated.

The findings about skin-related conditions were less certain, in part due to hospital diagnosis codes, but, Denham said, "we do know from formal complaints to the Pennsylvania Department of Health related to fracking activities that these symptoms exist."

Although the team observed spikes in hospital stays for skin, genital, and urinary conditions as regional fracking rose, they did not examine what specifically led to those ailments. While calling for further research, they offered some potential explanations, which included documented dermatological effects of the chemicals used in fracking as well as studies that have linked drilling activity to risky sexual behaviors, which could help explain the genitourinary hospitalizations.

The research and subsequent warning from Denham's team are especially alarming considering the Trump administration's fossil fuel-friendly agenda.

However, even before President Donald Trump took office, Pennsylvania was a hotbed for fracking. In 2017, the state was second only to Texas in terms of natural gas production, with much of the drilling focused on Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania's southwestern region.

And, as Denham emphasized, "it's [an] important point to keep in mind that hospitalizations are for acute illness or serious exacerbations of chronic illness... So if we see strong associations with hospitalizations, it's likely that additional cases of mild symptoms for the same illnesses have been addressed at home or in an outpatient setting, or not addressed at all."

EHN's report on the study provoked renewed calls from environmental and public health advocates for state officials, particularly Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, to end fracking in Pennsylvania:

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